“Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

If one doesn’t have a sense of humor, it’s very difficult to be happy; it’s necessary not to take oneself too seriously. Humor also helps us to be in good humor, and if we are in good humor it’s easier to live with others and with ourselves. — Pope Francis

Once when I was agonizing over family of origin issues, a friend of mine who has a quick and sometimes sardonic sense of humor, said: “All of our family dysfunctions will be the very source of endless comedic laughter as they are healed by the mercy of God.” A lovely play on Psalm 126:1-2:

When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
on our lips there were songs.

His words were, at that moment in my life, a healing balm.

My wife says she can always tell when I have been overwhelmed by some difficulty, and lost proper perspective, “because you stop making me laugh.” Humor exposes life’s absurdities and contradictions, plays on the expected and the unexpected, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Humor surprises and safely raises taboo topics, releasing built-up pressure. And it can have a prophetic force, exposing evil or injustice or incompetence. The art of funny requires a keen sense of timing, context, audience, the ability to tell a story, etc.

Of course, humor can be used for good or ill, to lift up or tear down, to humble or to shame, to lighten up or mock, to reset perspective or desecrate, to tell the truth or deceive. Humor can help us face reality more honestly, but it can also help us to avoid dealing with reality.

But as I seek to define humor, I am warned by G.K. Chesterton, “It is thus a term which not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humour to search for a definition of humour.” Kind of like having to explain a joke to someone after you’ve told it.

Good humor is, as the saying goes, “the best medicine.” Psychologically, physiologically, spiritually. Which is why quite often my bedtime readings are comedians Dave Barry and Jim Gaffigan (we will see Gaffigan performing live in a few days!). I love to watch funny movies, TV shows or stand up comedy routines. Occasionally, I (re)subject my kids to one of the (tragically) 6 episodes from the TV series Police Squad. But my favorite sitcom, and my wife’s, is the Goldbergs. My favorite TV series ever.

I love to laugh, and to make others laugh.

I have always thought we should add humor as an eighth “spiritual work of mercy,” right after “comfort the sorrowful,” and believe that the ability to make others laugh is a charism of the Spirit that, at Pentecost, was meant to go with the Church to the ends of the earth. In the words of the sage Dr. Seuss, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

I frequently ask St. Philip Neri (patron of comedians) and St. Thomas More to obtain for me this gift so I can, above all, make my wife laugh.

A Typical Day in the Life of…

Happy Ordinary Time!

It’s been, and continues to be, a very busy stretch. Amid the press of various work commitments, I drew in some fresh Spring air at our daughter Maria’s (and Ashley’s) High School graduation on Monday! Above is photo of the Neal Family, afterwards. Tears, smiles, joy, sorrow, but mostly overflowing gratitude.

The next day after graduation, Maria edited a new (and really fun) genre Mashley video. Since this Blog really serves as a cover for promoting my family, I will slip her video in here. I am hoping to resume the ruse this weekend and put some new theological posts out.

Pastry Chefs & Prostitutes [& Theology]

Today, I am simply posting a dear friend’s commencement speech from last week at our Seminary’s graduation. Hi name is Austin Ashcraft, and he gave me permission to post his brother’s phone recording (text here).

In just a few minutes, Austin captured a dynamic vision of theological education that offers a real response to the aggression of atheistic secularism with an equally impassioned theistic secularism, i.e. that prepares students to hand over a God who “so loved the world” in (an uncaged) Christ.

Let me tell you, the quality of seminarians and laity who graduated this year makes me realize the New Evangelization is in full throttle in the Deep South.

Sigrid, Raw

[had this unfinished post in my drafts. i recall it was fun to write. felt inspired to post. be back next weekend.]

If I show I’m fragile
Would you go ahead and find somebody else?
And if I act too tough, know that I care ’bout you
I’m honest, no offense

No, I could never fake it
Like players always playing
Arrest me if I hurt you
But no apologies for being me

I am now a huge Sigrid fan, thanks to my daughter who introduced me to her last week. Sigrid is a Norwegian singer and songwriter who just hit the pop scene last year.

I like her because she is, as Maria says it, “authentic, honest and quirky.” Her music is not hyper-produced, the lyrics are plain, direct and reflective, and her look is natural. I hope she retains all of that.

I especially liked the song Raw, because it made me think of my wife. Patti, for those who know her, pulls no punches. What you see is what you get. She is truthful in the extreme, which is what I have always loved most about her. Whether it’s pointing out that I need to take a second shower before giving an evening lecture, calling me on the carpet for some inconsistency, or grabbing me by the tie and saying (when she saw I was filling my early morning prayer time with work), “I need you to be a man of prayer!” — she is, for me, grace in my face.

Patti is truthiness with lipstick and high heels. Once when I praised her for this quality, she said, “Well, when we got married I did say ‘I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad!'”

But the greatest part of her honesty is that it goes both ways — she welcomes it as much as she offers it. And that is something I find very rare in life, people who invite and welcome honest feedback. She will often say, “You don’t need to protect my feelings. I need to hear your perspective.”

But at the bottom of all such radical honesty — nakedness before the other — is unconditional trust. There can be no real honesty if you don’t have that in a relationship, don’t have the mutual understanding, guarded by love, sealed by a promise that the other person will never use your weaknesses against you; will never intend you harm; will never betray you; will never leave you, no matter what. Only when love is steeled by such a promise can you really get down and dirty, dig deep, be wholly free to be yourself and allow the other to be the same.

Of course, even with the best of intentions, without ill will, we do hurt each other. Reality. But even here the commitment to honesty rescues us, as I know I can admit my failure, my sin against her with unvarnished honesty and she will receive that and forgive me. Will give forgiveness which is not owed or demanded, but freely given to an unworthy recipient.

And let me say that kind of forgiveness brings you to your knees. Breaks your stony heart. Calls you out of your mediocrity toward the better. Honest love is a costly love, is a paschal love “caught up into divine love [that] leads the spouses to God with powerful effect.”*

So yes, it’s true. She, I just want to be raw.

*Gaudium et Spes #48

Ode to Twenty One Pilots

[re-post]

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. — Vatican II

My Twenty One Pilots obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young. But what a remarkable depth. A poet’s mind, disarming authenticity. He truly shares the anxieties of this age, which styles him a powerful voice.

The interviewer asked him a fascinating question: what is the mission of Twenty One Pilots? From whence their lyrics, their musical style?

Tyler struggled to answer. He spoke of the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans. He admitted these tempt to distract him. But what really drives him, he said, is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. “If our music can lift up just one person, making their life better and more joyful, then that is the mission of Twenty One Pilots. I don’t just want to entertain people, I want them to think with me, to think about universally true things. I’m a seeker. I ask questions and hope they lead to joy.”

Their song Car Radio captures this brilliantly,

There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win
And fear will lose
There’s faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think

Precisely the definition St. Anselm gave to my life’s work, theology, which is fides quaerens intellectum, which I like to translate as “the quest of thinking faith.”

Unquestionably, there is a Christian worldview that inhabits their sounds and lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to use overtly religious language. Being an inhabitant of our creed-averse culture,  he creatively engages the challenge of trying to carry with him a “theology” into a diverse, splintered and radically pluralistic ethos. Faith “latently” informs their art, making TØP songs like fissures that compromise the integrity of the hardened walls constructed by an atheist, materialist, consumerist secularism. Letting some transcendent air in the room so we can breathe deep.

Or you might say they sing their music (deftly) into a culture comfortable only with an agnostic form of worship offered on “the altar to an unknown God” (Acts 17:23). There on that altar, faith can quietly lead us to contend more seriously with life’s great questions, to grapple with the rawest anxieties of our day, with an eye to hope.

When I went to the TØP concert with my daughters last year, I found my own faith stirred in a powerful way. It was truly an off-beat experience of worship for me, that left a mark for months afterward. All I could think of at the end of their concert, after they finished the song Trees, was the name for God coined by the 13th century Beguine, Marguerite Porete

FarNear

There in the commercialized Smoothie-King Center in NOLA, the God made “far” by our disenchanted culture drew stunningly near. “I want to know you, I want to see you, I want to say, Hello.”

After listening to the interview with Tyler, I wrote a poem. It’s my summary of what I see to be their aesthetic mission. Dang, I wish they could read it.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Canting angst, oracles of Zeitgeist
haunted by a restless Father’s Love
whirling about the cross of Christ
faith to life stitched, deftly spliced.

Rapping deep into a living Tree
facing the face of fear, whilst longing
to be found, kissed by Truth set free
love filial, of our gnarled humanity.

Though never preaching, evoking
a beauty that saves, invites, feeds
thinking into our within, provoking
hope, suicidal minds all-soaking.

Your words, incise, cut, make bleed
yet gently wound to heal and bind
our inscape to a life-giving creed
bruising none of each fragile reed.

Your igneous mission rings clear:

Dare us hope Up, out of the fear
into the peace of God, Unknown
Heart Whisperer, “I AM, here
weeping dry every falling tear.”